Perhaps the names Igor Stravinsky and Zubin Mehta do
not immediately resonate as a match made in Heaven. It was up to this
Prom, with the marvellously virtuosic Israel Philharmonic Orchestra,
then, to belie expectations.
As it happened, the reasons for any perceived mismatch
were all on display in the first piece on the long programme, the Symphony
in Three Movements (1942-5). The problem was most manifest in the
first movement. It felt slow, mainly because accents consistently
had the edge taken off them. Stravinsky is justly famous for his foregrounding
of the rhythmic parameter, and if this is underplayed the quirky, jerky
nature of the surface is undermined. All was disjunct, but in the wrong,
aimless way. True, the later pages of this movement had significantly
more bite than the earlier ones, but the indistinct lower string quavers
at the close said that all was still not well.
Many of the same failings blighted the finale. Again,
it was just on the slow side and the accents failed to ignite. Perhaps
Mehta was trying to emphasise the balletic elements, an idea that at
least showed the middle movement in a better light. The Andante was
flowing, characterful and relaxed, the strings tender.
Mehta’s conducting technique is justly famous, and
not a single beat or cue was out of place. He even conducted from memory
(as he did the entire programme), no mean feat. But surely this is just
not his music.
But Rimsky-Korsakov most definitely is. The vividly
coloured orchestral brush-strokes are just what appeal to Mehta the
showman, and right from the grand, stately opening and the lovely, sweet-toned
violin, it was clear this was going to be a reading of stature. And
so it was. Rimsky provides many opportunities for soloists apart from
the solo violin (who represents the heroine) to shine, and each and
every one of them grabbed the opportunities (perhaps in the final analysis
it was the clarinet who was the King of the Cadenzas). I wonder if Mehta
is a man of charm: his ‘Young Prince and Princess’ certainly was, while
his tarantella festival was jubilant, dancing along infectiously. Ensemble
was jaw-droppingly together at speed, gestures broad and effective.
A triumph after the damp squib of the Symphony.
Of course, anyone with Mehta’s ear for colour should
have a ball with Petrushka (1946 version), and so it transpired.
The virtuosity of the orchestra was again never in doubt: the high cellos
at the opening, for once, failed to show strain. All of a sudden, the
rhythmic drive so lacking in the first half’s Stravinsky surfaced with
a vengeance. Everything was beautifully tight (the ‘Russian Dance’ was
a triumph), and orchestrationally it was easy to hear the link with
Rimsky’s world (a link one usually makes when referring to Firebird).
In particular, the dark sonorities of the third tableau (‘In the Moor’s
Quarters’) were perfectly caught; the dances of ‘The Shrovetide Fair’
were marvels of characterisation (including the loudest tuba playing
I have every heard). The imagined on-stage movements of the closing
scene were graphically invoked (almost cartoon-like in effect!), the
ending positively dripping in concentration (although not from the rather
restless audience, alas).
It would be impossible not to mention the trumpet section,
who were almost note-perfect throughout (the trumpet/side drum duet
was astonishing in that every single note sounded clearly, with no slurring
of fudging). A welcome visit from a virtuoso orchestra that, in the
end, provided far more than just the notes themselves.